Morality: Created By Evolution or Religion?

Biologist Frans De Waal says hugging, kissing, mourning inherited from primates

ByABC News
November 23, 2010, 2:57 PM

Dec. 2, 2010 — -- Let a bunch of chimpanzees into a yard filled with watermelons and while a few of them may horde the fruit at first, eventually they will share. If not, their whole social system will be disrupted.

"If things get totally out of whack, you keep everything and I get nothing, yes, there is going to be some protest," eminent biologist Frans De Waal said.

De Waal has spent over 30 years studying primates. He said that the primates' protest against those who don't share is the equivalent of the righteous indignation we humans sometimes display.

Take Americans' frustration with Wall Street executives getting big bonuses. De Waal said that those feelings of outrage are rooted in the same feelings that a primate feels when his fellow monkey stiffs him.

De Waal, a pioneer in the topic of animal empathy, said that this is just one example of mammals displaying something approaching a moral sense. He said that mammals frequently display empathy and reciprocity, crucial components of morality.

"I do think that human morality didn't start from scratch -- human morality started with the primate psychology which has all these tendencies of reciprocity and empathy and following social rules and so we took that psychology and we turned it into a moral system," he said.

Examples of this empathy include the way chimps will hug and kiss after a fight and the way they help out elderly members.

The professor recalled a group of chimpanzees rallying around an older, arthritic female chimp.

"On certain days, she could barely walk and we noticed that on those days, other younger females would run to the water spigot and get water and they would run up to her and she would open her mouth and they would spit it in there," De Waal said.

Chimpanzees also mourn.

"If one of the members of the group dies...the rest don't eat for a day. They're very silent. They don't eat, even though normally they would always eat," he said.

De Waal also designed an experiment with Capuchin monkeys where a female gets a choice between a token that will result in just her getting a treat or one that results in both her and a friend getting treats.

"Over time if you do this often enough, the monkeys start to prefer the pro-social token as we call it," De Waal said.

The pro-social token means the monkey chooses the option that will help her friend too.